Thursday, March 09, 2023

I’m no historian but Taylor Sheridan’s “1883” seems bona fide

At the urging of one of my sisters (her first name starts with M), I tuned in to "1883" last night and was up to all hours. My favorite line thus far comes from Sam Elliott, the grizzled veteran of the trails. He hates all of their delays and warns Dutton that it puts the wagon train at South Pass in October. South Pass in October can be nice from a car window in 2023. It can also be the other thing -- a white-out nightmare. Imagine yourself on horseback or in a wagon or on foot, still miles to go until Oregon.

I stayed away from Taylor Sheridan’s “Yellowstone” series because its biggest fans also seemed to be FOX viewers. I didn’t want to watch another  “Dallas of the Tetons” or a color version of “Wagon Train.” I didn’t want to see all the old tropes from a John Ford movie. The early part of his career, until “The Searchers” brought some reality to the genre. I loved the old “Wagon Train” and “Rawhide.” I loved all those TV westerns. I was a kid and looking for heroes. I got ‘em by the wagon-load. They’ve channeled my behavior ever since. My politics are a combination of Rowdy Yates and Sister Norbert. They were both enforcers who rode for the brand. Moral and fair. A bit rough around the edges.

I like “1883” thus far. It is cold-blooded in its portrayal of the migration to the West. Cheyenne at this point was 17 years old. It might have been a bit more civilized than Fort Worth, not nearly as crazy as Deadwood. Fortunately for streaming services, Frederick Jackson Turner would not declare the frontier “gone” for another decade. The Duttons will have settled in Montana or Wyoming or a version of Wyotana filmed in Canada. Wyoming would become a state in 1890 and was fairly civilized until MAGA Republicans took over the state legislature. Now all is lost.

But back to “Yellowstone.” I am watching the entire series to keep me occupied until “The Last of Us” returns with Season Two. It’s an odd coincidence but episodes 7 & 8 of “The Last of Us” take place in the winter wilderness of Wyoming and Colorado. The characters ride horses and hunt for their own meat. There are bandits and cultists and killers everywhere. And don’t forget the fungi zombies although they’ve been scarce the last two episodes. The protagonists are killers, as both Sheriff Jim Courtright (Billy Bob Thornton) and Trail Boss Shea Brennan (Elliott) call themselves in “1883.” Ellie proved to be a very capable killer in TLOU Episode 8 and Joel long ago proved he can eliminate those who threaten him or his young charge.

I am thankful when the depiction of killing is put in able hands. My wife keeps asking if we can watch something civilized such as “The Sound of Music” (she is not a “Yellowstone” fan). I say just wait as I’m standing by for the latest body count. That would be “Yellowjackets,” season 2 coming March 24 on Showtime.

Thursday, February 23, 2023

Even cyborgs need periodic battery replacements

I’ve been recovering from heart surgery since Feb. 16. It was Valentine’s Day Week and it seemed like a good time for it. Heart surgery has an ominous sound. Thoughts go to quadruple bypasses and aortic valve replacement. I just needed a replacement generator in my chest to stop any signs of ventricular fibrillation which can lead to death. The gadget is filled with microchips and wires that connect to leads that snake down into my heart. I got my first one ten years ago after a widowmaker heart attack that almost did me in. Because it took too long to get help for my stopped-up heart, it sustained some muscle damage which in turn made my heart less effective. Up until January 2013, my heart had been very good to me. In high school, it pumped like a champ as I ran down the basketball court or when a girl looked at me in a certain way. Got me through my adult years until I hit 62 then BAM! Damn…

So the first one wore out and I needed a new one. I am on Medicare and have secondary insurance that pay for the $23,000 gizmo and attendant expenses such as doctor’s fees, OR fees, nursing services, etc. I am lucky to have health care insurance that keeps me ticking. Health insurance is a right and should not be optional. I see that our esteemed GOP state legislators have once again torpedoed Medicaid expansion that would insure thousands of Wyomingites. A widowmaker strikes and you need help? Tough luck, buddy. For the GOP it’s all about the cruelty. They didn’t used to announce their cruelties for all the world to see and hear. Now they shout it from the rooftops.

Back to my trip to the operating room. It’s called the CRMC Cath Lab and it’s where the electrophysiologists work their magic. I was under conscious sedation, like the kind you get for your colonoscopy. In this case, the surgeon applied a topical anesthesia and then pumped me with Fentanyl but not too much. He then cut into my chest, removed the old battery and in with the new. Then he sealed me back up. Before you know what’s going on, I'm being whisked off to recovery.

So how does my electrophysiologist keep track of the signals beamed from my Abbott Laboratories ICD? I used to have a Merlin Home Transmitter the size of the big black phones you used to see in 1940s movies. It sat by the side of my bed and beamed my readings to the CRMC Device Clinic. My new monitor is a Samsung device, smaller than a smart phone, that I can take anywhere. Pretty slick.

My new machine should last 5-7 years, according to the pamphlet that accompanied it. I plan on lasting at least that long. Seven days post-op and I’m doing fine.

Thank you, modern technology and surgical expertise. 

Two years ago I reviewed a nonfiction book about ICDs on WyoFile. It's "Lightning Flowers" and written by Wyoming author Katherine E. Standefer. She needed a device while still in her 20s and then set out to find the its origins. A great tale, whether you're a cyborg or not. 

Sunday, February 19, 2023

Night of the Widowmaker, ten years on

Ten years ago on these pages, I regaled my readers with stories of my heart attack. It was an exciting misadventure. Nobody in my family had heart issues and neither did I. I was struck down in the middle of a working day. The scientific name for my affliction is anterior ST-segment elevation myocardial infarction or STEMI. It’s commonly known as “The Widowmaker.”

I didn’t hear the term from a cardiologist until I was recovering in my hospital room. Such finality. It seemed so 19th century. "Night of the Widowmaker" could easily be the title of a thriller novel. Its shock value was too tempting for a storyteller to ignore. I used it hundreds of times in place of heart attack. When I took the time to describe it in detail, tossing in an encyclopedia of medical terms, I could see my listener’s attention begin to wane. Simply described, the left anterior descending (LAD) artery gets blocked by a clot or plaque and the heart reacts.

The signs are there should you pay attention. Chest pain, shortness of breath, excessive sweating, jaw pain. Mine was a belly ache. Since it happened during norovirus season, I figured I was getting ready to blow chunks and/or get the runs. I got neither. It was Dec, 17, 2012, and the eve of my birthday number 62. I might have to lay off the cake and ice cream. I was off work for two weeks so I could lie around and see what happened. After a week, I went to my GP and he thought I might have pneumonia so sent me for an X-ray. He had a perfectly good EKG machine out in the hall but that never entered into the conversation. The X-ray showed congestion and the doc prescribed an antibiotic and bed rest.

On Jan. 2, I headed to work but only made it as far as my front door. I couldn’t open it. I called my wife. She decided to come home and take me to the ER. When she arrived, she saw I was in pain so called 911. The EMTs got there quick, took my vitals, and said I was having heart failure. They bundled me onto a gurney and sped, sirens blaring, to the hospital. Tests and X-rays showed the heart attack and also congestive heart failure. Dr. Khan wanted to get me to surgery right asway but held off because I couldn’t breathe. So he stashed me on the telemetry floor and prescribed Lasik to rid my body of fluids. The next day, I had an oblation which opened the LAD and I began to recover.

Then I started telling my story. My heart, left to its own devices for two weeks, lost some of its pumping power. They filled me full of drugs, sent me home with orders for several rounds of cardiotherapy. Six months later, I got the bad news that my heart had only partially recovered and that I was a prime candidate for Catastrophic heart failure. To avoid further drama, I needed an Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator or ICD. So I got one. Its battery eventually ran down, so this last Thursday, I got a new one.

The ICD lasts from 7-10 years. I pushed mine to the end so Medicare and my insurance company would agree to foot the bill. Medicare reimbursement for an ICD is 23 thousand and change. That doesn’t include hospital and physician and other associated fees. That will quickly eat up my deductible so my out-of-pocket costs will be manageable.

Someone with a heart condition shouldn’t have to worry about affordability. Someone with breast cancer – my wife – shouldn’t have to worry about treatment costs. My son and daughter, both with mental health and medical needs, shouldn’t have to up their angst to find affordable treatments. Alas, that’s where we are in 2023 in the United States of America.

Next time, I'll explore the status of my heart ten years on.

For some of my ruminations on the widowmaker, put "heart" in the blog's search bar.

Monday, February 13, 2023

Kristin Hannah's historical novel features the brave women of the French Resistance

I’m reading “The Nightingale” by Kristin Hannah. It’s the story of two sisters in a small French village occupied by the Nazis. The elder sister, Vianne, has a child and a husband captured during the Nazi blitzkrieg. The younger one, Isabelle, is the rebel of the family, kicked out of a number of boarding schools and now working for the French Resistance. The sisters live very different lives. They share a hatred of the Nazis and possess strong wills to survive the war. The more compelling story is of the Resistance. The author has said that the novel is a tribute to these brave women. They faced dying during guerrilla raids or arrest which also meant death or a trip to a Nazi extermination camp. I just finished a chapter where Isabelle with her Basque guide takes four downed RAF pilots from Paris over the Pyrenees to the British embassy in neutral Spain.

Imagine traveling undercover to Jackson in a train jammed with Nazis and then hiking over the Tetons to Driggs in late October, struggling up talus slopes and crossing waterways, all the while dodging Nazis on one side of the border or Franco’s fascists on the other side. Or maybe it’s a postapocalyptic jaunt where the bad guys are some of the right-wing goons who invaded the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. Well-armed and stupid. Rain and snow will fall as you travel. It will be cold and you’re wearing running shoes and a light jacket.

You get the picture. These people were braver than brave. Their country had been overrun. Friends and family members had been killed by the Nazis. They must pay.

I don’t know what I would do. I’ve hiked Wyoming and Colorado mountains in all kinds of weather but I am always prepared. I am in my 20s (used to be), dressed for the climate and wearing good boots. I have five days of food in my pack and one of those tiny stoves. Good topo maps. Pretend I have a loaded Glock at my side, prepared for attacks by Bloaters (“The Last of Us,” episode 5).

Just think about it. The French Resistance had so much less and did so much more.

I’m looking forward to the film version of “The Nightingale.” Dakota and Elle fanning play the sisters. I hope the creators do it justice. You can see a teaser here.

Saturday, February 11, 2023

Booth and the Our American Cousin we want to forget


That family name is infamous. John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of Abraham Lincoln. It is one of the most dastardly deeds in U.S. history. We still live with the consequences.

Booth didn't just rise from the Ford Theater stage and murder a president. He came from somewhere. He had parents, brothers and sisters. As a kid in Maryland, he was a scamp who liked dogs, rode horses, and played tricks on his siblings. He is not a monster, at least he's not in Karen Joy Fowler's amazing historical novel, "Booth." He's the third-youngest of the children of noted actor Junius Booth and his beleaguered wife. A Marylander, he turns into a Southern sympathizer and buys into the kind of political mind-rot our Uncle Jimbo in South Carolina now gets on Fox and social media. 

We know how the story ends. In tragedy, maybe the worst one in American history. An almost-famous actor kills the president and changes history.

One can almost hear the reporters of 1865 interviewing the neighbors. "He seemed like such a nice man. Last winter I saw him playing in the snow with the kids (a scene from "Booth"). A fine actor too. You just gotta wonder what went wrong."

Presidential assassin John Wilkes Booth. He seemed like such a nice man. Until he wasn't.

"Booth," an historical novel by Karen Joy Fowler, explores the Booth family history leading up to April 14, 1865, at a performance of "Our American Cousin" at Ford's Theater in Washington, D.C. John Wilkes Booth, a Southern sympathizer and conspiracy nut, bursts into Lincoln's box and shoots him in the head. The country, part of it anyway, goes into mourning. Unreconstructed Confederates cheer. 

A divided country -- so what else is new? 

Monday, February 06, 2023

Don't get around much anymore, but plan to change that

My daughter Annie invited me to go on the Friday ArtWalk. I used to go every month when I worked at the Wyoming Arts Council. Then I retired and went less often. Then I hurt my spine and needed a walker to get around. Then came Covid and there was no ArtWalk. Then Covid was over and my wife Chris was diagnosed with breast cancer.

ArtWalk was taken over by Arts Cheyenne in 2022 after a ten-year run in the hands of local artist Georgia Rowswell. It's gone from the second Thursday of the month to a First Friday arts event. It includes visits to local galleries, such as Clay Paper Scissors and new arts venues such as the Cheyenne Creativity Center downtown. There's new art to see, lots to eat and drink, and music by local musicians.

I hadn’t been to a First Friday before Annie invited me. She’s an artist too, you see, and just getting involved in the local art scene. Since most of my professional life was spent as an arts administrator where I did a lot of arts stuff, Annie depends on me for insight into that world. I laugh inwardly, not wanting to think about all of the things I don’t know about the art world. I know just enough.

Last night I realized that my social skills are not as fine-tuned as when I regularly had to schmooze with artists, writers, gallery owners, politicians, just plain folks. I was quite adept at small talk and most of the time I was on hand as a professional from the state arts agency and people expected me to say something enlightening. I tried. More than once I had to say I didn’t have an answer and I would get back to them on it. And I did. That’s how I learned. OJT. There are people born as arts administrators, there are those who go to college for it, and there are those who learn through trial and error. I am in this latter category. While in grad school at Colorado State, I helped arrange readings by writers. I had attended quite a few as a fan and someone busily writing fiction while I tried to make a living in other ways. I had no real sense of what it took to put on a reading. I found out at CSU.

I also did my first try at administering the arts. One of my faculty mentors, Mary Crow, asked if I wanted to serve on the Fine Arts Series. I was trying to get to class, teach a couple sections of composition, workshop my own writing, and find way to spend time with my wife and young son. Naturally, I volunteered. The Fine Arts Series meetings were busy and congenial. Its members included undergraduates and graduate students. Also CSU staff including the director, Mims Harris. I stepped into a semester that featured music and dance performances, an annual poster art show, and literary events. I volunteered for the latter. Thus began my journey.

Last night, I felt detached from that world. Early in retirement, I made a choice to spend time with my own writing and not volunteer for arts events. And then all of those other things happened and I found myself out of the loop. There was a lot I really liked about the loop. Educating myself and meeting new people. I liked that. Paperwork? Not so much. Annie has had a few arts-related jobs and is learning. My son volunteers for the local theatre and he also is discovering the joys and sorrows of THE LIFE.

I plan on attending more ArtWalks, readings, book signings, and the annual Governor’s Arts Awards gala. I miss it. I continue writing – that’s a priority. But all work and no play make Mike a dull boy. My advice: stay in touch with your schmoozing self. It keeps you engaged and the mind working, a concern for anyone over 70 which is where I find myself. I could play Wordle or assemble 1,000-piece puzzles. That would sharpen my synapses. I could do any number of things in retirement. An Atlantic Magazine Online piece this week asked "Why so many people are unhappy in retirement." The subhead: "Too often, we imagine life to be like the hero's journey and leave out the crucial last step: letting go." I could only read the first graf before the paywell clicked in. But I got the gist. Nobody wants to let go. Our entire life is based on beingness. We are not equipped to grasp nothingness. So we rage, rage, against the dying of the light. Or we sulk. Or lurk on social media. Or watch Fox News all day and experience the sweet rush of having our brains sucked from our heads.

I will choose engagement. I feel alive then and can delay thoughts of letting go for just one more day.

Friday, February 03, 2023

I discover Donald Westlake's novels and reminisce about John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee

I found Donald Westlake's Dortmunder books and they are fantastic. Always a caper going on. Always sharp dialogue and lots of humor. Westlake passed away in 2008 but I can see he's in the same school as Carl Hiaasen, Elmore Leonard, Janet Evanovich and Jerome Charyn. Maybe a dash of Don DeLillo too. So far I've read two of the volumes, "The Road to Ruin" and the first Dortmunder novel, "The Hot Rock." It was published in 1970. I didn't look that up until I finished but there were clues placed throughout. The cars they drive, the characters' language, ubiquitous phone booths, no personal computers. Its throwback quality didn't bother me. He had a skillful way of incorporating all of that into the narrative.  

What other crime-adjacent novels of that era would show such wit? I thought of John D. MacDonald, for instance, and his Travis McGee character. McGee probably had too much machismo for these times. He could be funny and ironic. He called himself a "salvage consultant" and lived on his "Busted Flush" houseboat docked at the Bahia Mar Marina. McGee's erstwhile sidekick is Meyer, an economist always ready for a McGee caper. He dwells on a neighboring boat named for his hero, John Maynard Keynes.

I worked at a Florida bookstore in the '70s and I brought MacDonald's novels to my mother Anna Shay (R.I.P Mom) and she devoured them. Me too. Travis and his Busted Flush houseboat. I could always see McGee's houseboat through MacDonald's Imagination. Back in the '80s, my brother Dan and I visited Bahia Mar and stopped at Slip F-18. We thought about the McGee we knew from the books. Slip F-18 was declared a literary landmark in 1987, a year after the author's death. 

I did my usual Google search for Travis McGee and came up with an article by Kris Hundley on the Visit Florida site (couldn't find a pub date). The second paragraph about the Bahia Mar Marina set the tone for the story:
There's little room left for a boat bum like Travis McGee. 
She described present-day Bahia Mar in gritty detail.
Bahia Mar touts its ability to accommodate yachts up to 300 feet, even squeezing in a 312-footer recently for a month-long stay. The marina's 3,000-foot dock along the Intracoastal sports one mega-yacht after another. flawlessly polished hulls gleaming, white communications domes looming 50-feet overhead, docked so closely together that the uber-rich could step from one vessel to another without ever touching the ground. Not an inch of precious real estate is wasted.
Bahia Mar must have considered the literary landmark plaque dedicated to MacDonald as "wasted space." It now sits in the marina's office. Hundley wraps up the piece this way: 
A boat bum might seem forgotten among such glitz. But inside the marina office, the woman behind the desk said that not a week goes by that someone doesn't wander in, looking for the slip once occupied by Travis McGee. She is not sure what the fuss is about: she's never read the books. 
Made me want to bang my head against the desk. MacDonald and McGee would have had a few things to say about the wretched excess of 21st century Florida. As a self-described "salvage consultant," McGee usually was coming to the aid of a trusting soul who had been ripped by someone who would own a 312-foot mega-yacht. His price was always half of the recovered loot. When the client objected, his usual response was "half of something is better that nothing." MacDonald also wrote the best-selling "Condominium" which tore into the thoughtless development going on in coastal Florida which has not abated in the 46 years since the novel's original publication. 

During his lifetime, MacDonald got great reviews from the likes of Hiaasen and Kurt Vonnegut. Here's what Vonnegut said about MacDonald's work:
“To diggers a thousand years from now, the works of John D. MacDonald would be a treasure on the order of the tomb of Tutankhamen."

I feel a need to reread Travis McGee, see how he holds up in these fast-moving and confusing times.

Mike Miller posted an updated article on Travis McGee on Jan. 28. It was on the Florida Back Roads Travel site. In it, he writes about how he first came upon MacDonald's character when his father visited him in Florida in 1964 and gave him a copy of "The Deep Blue Good-by." His father was reading the latest novel, "Nightmare in Pink." Miller read "Deep Blue" and was hooked. He's read the entire series, some of them twice, and is a devoted fan. Read Miller's essay to understand what makes McGee tick, and why his books are still in print. 

My mother died too young in 1986, a McGee fan to the end. Mike Miller's father died in a St. Cloud, Fla., nursing home in 1986, the same year MacDonald died. Miller Senior's dying message to his son was "Nightmare in Pink." 

Now that's a fan.